Eagle Butte Mine

Blackjewel's Eagle Butte Mine was one of two closed July 1, 2019, as the company filed for bankruptcy. More than 600 workers at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines lost their jobs with the action. Rhianna Gelhart/Gillette News Record

GILLETTE – A letter to locked out Blackjewel LLC coal workers at the company’s shuttered Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr operations foreshadows a possible reopening of the mines and leaves almost 600 employees with more questions than answers.

Blackjewel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection July 1 and abruptly closed its 32 operations in Wyoming and across Appalachia and locked out about 1,700 workers. Since then, employees have had their final paychecks bounce, haven’t been paid for other time worked, haven’t had 401(k) and health insurance account contributions paid and, as of the end of August, have had their health insurance canceled.

Now the company wants to know if the Wyoming mines were to reopen, how many of its 580 Campbell County workers would return if recalled.

Hundreds of those employees already have applied for and have been collecting unemployment from the state and hundreds more have found other jobs since, as the letter states, “the company was forced to temporarily furlough several employees.”

While noncommittal, the letter asks workers if they’d come back. If they don’t respond by Sept. 19, then Blackjewel will consider that a resignation.

“The company is currently considering restarting production efforts at the facilities and, as a result, may be in the position to recall furloughed workers,” the letter says. “The company does not know specifically when it would restart production, but if it is in the position to do so, it could restart operations during the next several days or during the coming weeks.”

Employees are given the contact information of a company human resources person and told that if they “are not available or willing to return to work, we certainly would understand and wish you all the best in your future endeavors.”

While the prospect of returning to work is appealing to some, the thought of actively working for Blackjewel again would be difficult, said one longtime mine worker who asked not to be identified. While he said he may return if recalled, he knows of many others who wouldn’t even if they haven’t yet found other jobs.

“The dislike for and distrust of Blackjewel at this point is at such a high, I don’t know if they’d have many good people willing to go back,” he said.

He also said the wording of the letter is so vague that it instills little confidence a recall actually could happen.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

Although Contura Energy Inc. was approved Aug. 6 by a federal U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge to buy the Wyoming mines, the sale is contingent on Contura reaching an agreement with the government over unpaid royalties.

In the 36 days since, the sale seems to have hit a stalemate and Blackjewel’s largest debt holder even called the deal “dead” in a court filing.

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